The arc of Raiders history is bending toward something very good. Two seasons ago, they won only three games. Last season, it was up to seven. This season, they won 12 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Ratchet the trajectory forward and you can see it is morning in Raiderville, even if night fell on them Saturday in Houston when the Texans knocked them out of the playoffs.
Sometimes teams must go through the process of losing before they can sew themselves into champions. General manager Reggie McKenzie still needs to patch a few pieces into the quilt, but only a few.
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The fundamentals are in place for the Raiders to be very good for a very long time. Derek Carr will recover from his broken leg and become one of the top quarterbacks in the league for the next decade. Defensive end Khalil Mack made the All-Pro team for the second consecutive season and should make a few more. Kelechi Osemele earned All-Pro honors at left guard, his anchor position on an offensive line that’s probably as good as any except Dallas’.
Carr’s injury blocked the Raiders from making a serious impact in the playoffs. If his right ankle doesn’t get bent beneath him by Indianapolis’ Travis Cole on Dec. 24, the Raiders don’t play like zombies and do enough to win the regular-season finale in Denver and earn a first-round playoff bye rather than enter the wild-card round in Houston. Even if they lose in Denver with Carr, they probably beat the Texans and advance to a very interesting game this weekend against New England or Kansas City.
They know they have to deal with us. They know the Raiders are here.
David Amerson, Raiders cornerback
So much for the dream. But Raiders fans should feel good about this season. The go-for-two win in New Orleans marked the team and its coach, Jack Del Rio, as risk-taking winners. The Raiders had home losses to two very good teams, Atlanta and Kansas City. But they won road games over Tennessee, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, and three of those teams probably make the playoffs if they hold their own at home against the Raiders.
Did anybody have more fun than the Raiders the Sunday night that they ran for more than 200 yards against the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos? If you have to give up a home game to play in Mexico City, you might as well win it, and the Raiders did against the Texans in Week 11 to maintain the momentum generated by the home victory over the Broncos. On back-to-back weekends against Carolina and Buffalo at the raucous Coliseum, Mack made a pick-six against the Panthers’ Cam Newton, and he strip-sacked Newton and the Bills’ Tyrod Taylor and recovered the fumbles to seal wins.
A broken leg at home, a bobble in Denver and Saturday night’s disappointment in Houston roughed out the last few weeks of the season, but they did not change the Raiders’ overall upward thrust.
Sometimes these end-of-season difficulties are necessary in building toward championships. A team knows it’s good, then gets deeply hurt by a loss and doesn’t forget the pain. The wound becomes part of the experience. It becomes embedded in the mind and soul and serves as a reminder, a motivator in offseason workouts, something that yanks the unit closer together.
“If you could skip it,” Del Rio said after Saturday’s game, “I’d love to skip it.”
Neither Del Rio nor the Raiders felt good about the outcome in Houston. But they understood. A backup quarterback rushed to the front before he was ready, injuries on the offensive line and a few shortages on defense conspired to produce the loss.
One thing you did not see in the Raiders’ locker room was abject despair.
“The way I approach it, you go forward,” Del Rio said. “You believe and you teach, and you grow, and you continue to add, and you get stronger, and you know what you want it to look like, and you keep pushing for it.”
Over the last three years, McKenzie has struck gold in the draft and played the free-agent market to near perfection. Now he’s almost there. Now the Raiders could use a running back, and Christian McCaffrey should still be around when they pick, if McKenzie is looking for any advice. Linebacker might be a more pressing need, if the Raiders have one. Who among us can’t go for an upgrade somewhere in our game?
Football people know McKenzie will get the right guys who fit into a plan that has bigger things in mind than being a wild card.
“They know they have to deal with us,” cornerback David Amerson said after Saturday’s elimination. “They know the Raiders are here.”
The way I approach it, you go forward. You believe and you teach, and you grow, and you continue to add, and you get stronger, and you know what you want it to look like, and you keep pushing for it.
Jack Del Rio, Raiders coach
But where will “here” be? It remains the existential question for the Raiders. Matters of money say the answer is Las Vegas. Matters of the heart say it is Oakland, where there is still plenty of money, and where the Raiders’ identity was formed and refashioned, where the team that went flat for more than a decade is again on the cusp of greatness.